Leaders of Canadian activist and religious groups targeted by Beijing are calling for a public inquiry into foreign interference, saying it isn’t enough for former governor-general David Johnston to hold hearings to listen to their concerns about China’s efforts to silence their criticism.
Groups representing human rights activists, Muslim Uyghurs, Hong Kong pro-democracy dissidents, Falun Gong practitioners and supporters of independence for Tibet told The Globe and Mail they’ve been sounding the alarm for years about Beijing’s harassment and intimidation tactics.
They say it’s time for a full inquiry, headed by a judge with subpoena powers, and they don’t want to repeat to Mr. Johnston what they’ve already said in testimony before parliamentary committees and in published reports.
“Our concerns are well known by the politicians,” said Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Advocacy Project.
He expressed disappointment that Mr. Johnston found no evidence that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and senior ministers ignored intelligence on Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The special rapporteur’s report, released this week, blamed “serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government.”
Mr. Tohti also expressed concern that Mr. Johnston accepted the word of Mr. Trudeau that he was not told by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service of Beijing’s attempt to intimidate Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong just before the 2021 election.
“[Mr.] Johnston basically vindicated the government’s inaction and at the same time put the blame on CSIS for miscommunication,” he said. “For that reason alone, a public inquiry is a must.”
MPs on the Commons procedure and House affairs committee voted Thursday to call Mr. Johnston to testify for three hours on June 6. Mr. Johnston concluded that a formal public inquiry would not work because much of the classified information could not be shared with the public. Mr. Trudeau said he is abiding by that recommendation.
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The three main opposition parties in the minority Parliament have called for a full public inquiry.
Gloria Fung, president of Canada Hong Kong Link, said she is “hugely disappointed” with the Johnston report’s conclusions that the government has not been negligent in dealing with Chinese foreign interference. She also said Mr. Johnston seemed more concerned with media reports and national-security leaks than with how the government handled the issue.
“Mr. Johnston’s report will only erode our trust in him,” Ms. Fung said, adding she does not believe he should be conducting public hearings with Canadian groups targeted by Beijing.
“I don’t see how further hearings from Mr. Johnston will serve the purpose of finding out how interference was conducted, who and what organizations were involved, the impact of foreign interference on the political sphere and, most importantly, how we can safeguard the integrity of our democracy,” she said.
“We need an independent public inquiry, headed by a judge who reports to Parliament.”
Mr. Tohti agreed a public inquiry needs to look at the full scope of China’s interference operations, including harassment of diaspora communities, Chinese police stations, the stealing of Canadian technology, meddling in elections and mobilizing Chinese students to help Beijing’s operations in Canada.
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“It is about our national sovereignty and to me Johnston does not get why Canadians want a public inquiry,” he said.
Victor Ho of the B.C.-based group Chinese-Canadian Concerned Group on the Chinese Communist Party’s Human Rights Violation also called for a robust investigation and public inquiry “to safeguard Canadian values and protect Canadians so they can live in this country without fear.”
Mr. Ho, a former editor of Sing Tao Daily, said Mr. Johnston recognized that Chinese foreign interference is a serious threat but then rejected a judicial inquiry to “investigate the core facts of this present danger.”
Samphe Lhalungpa, chairperson of the board of the Canada Tibet Committee, an independent group promoting the human rights and freedom of the Tibetan people, said he, too, would prefer a public inquiry. Tibet was forcibly annexed by China more than 70 years ago.
He said harassment and interference from China is a fact of life for Tibetan Canadians. “We have been dealing with these guys since 1949. The original lie of the Chinese Communist Party is that Tibet is and was always an integral part of China.”
Mr. Lhalungpa noted how Chemi Lhamo, a young Tibetan-Canadian, was the target of malicious pro-China attacks in 2019 after she won election as student president at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Shortly after, her Instagram account started to receive dozens of comments that she described as hate-filled and malicious, nearly all of it motivated by her advocacy for an independent Tibet. Back in 2019, Ms. Lhamo said many of those comments were sent by international students from China.
Mr. Lhalungpa said when Tibetan-Canadians who have protested against China’s occupation of Tibet visit the Chinese embassy or consulate for a visa to visit their homeland, they are asked by Chinese visa officials: “Why do you want to go to Tibet when you were protesting in front of our embassy?” And the diplomats produce photos of past protests to drive home their point.
He said it’s unfair that Chinese citizens are able to visit Canada freely and even buy property while Tibetan-Canadians are denied visas to visit families or go on pilgrimages, unless they forgo “the exercise of their democratic rights to peaceful protest.”
Xun Li, president of the Falun Gong Association of Canada, said a public inquiry with the powers of subpoena and cross-examination is needed. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement under heavy persecution by Beijing.
“For 24 years, the Canadian Falun Gong community has been victimized by Chinese Communist Party interference, harassment, intimidation, threats, discrimination and bigotry without any protection,” Mr. Li said. “Because the interference was ignored for so long, it now runs deep in Canada and is a significant public concern that affects all Canadians. This public inquiry is necessary and essential.”
As far back as 2019, a coalition of human-rights groups led by Amnesty International Canada released a report saying Chinese government officials and supporters of the Communist Party of China are increasingly resorting to “threats, bullying and harassment” to intimidate and silence activists in Canada, including those raising concerns about democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong and Beijing’s mistreatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners.
They warned that Ottawa’s timid response to this foreign interference emboldened China to escalate its intimidation and interference activities, such as surveillance, monitoring and hacking of phones, computers and websites.
Special rapporteur David Johnston says that a formal inquiry into foreign interference is not needed, but that public hearings should be held as part of his own mandate. He says a public inquiry would be an easy choice, but not the correct one.
The Canadian Press